MIAMI (AP) — Federal authorities say a ring of Venezuelans living in South Florida and Mexico stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in U.S. government stimulus checks from people who were struggling financially during the the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jesus Felipe Linares Andrade, 34, was charged with conspiring to steal government money and identity theft, the Miami Herald reported.
Federal prosecutors said as many as four other “co-conspirators” originally from Venezuela may be added to an indictment.
The indictment said Linares and the unnamed co-conspirators are accused of stealing the stimulus checks and cashing them by using “fraudulent” identification documents, the Herald reported.
Linares was arrested in May, pleaded not guilty, and is being held without bond. Defense attorney David Scott Markus declined comment to the newspaper on Tuesday.
The Herald reported that Linares interacted with two informants in an FBI undercover operation.
In January, the FBI informant met in a mall parking lot near Miami with one of the four co-conspirators to discuss cashing about 30 Treasury checks totaling $36,000, the indictment said. The checks were each addressed to different U.S. taxpayers with addresses in Mexico.
In April, Linares met with the two FBI informants at another Miami area mall to discuss picking up a UPS package at a post office in Deerfield Beach, the newspaper reported. The package contained 416 checks worth about $249,000.
The affidavit said Linares made arrangements to pick up the package in mid-April and then put it in the trunk of the car being driven by the two informants. Later that month, Linares spoke to the informants again about coordinating the receipt of about $34,476 in “laundered funds” from stimulus checks, plus the delivery of an additional 226 Treasury checks worth about $135,000.
Later in April, Linares again met with the informants in Miami.
“During the meeting, Linares placed an envelope in the vehicle containing over $150,000 in stolen U.S. Treasury checks and over 30 identification documents,” according to the affidavit. The documents included some copies of driver’s licenses that matched the names on the checks.